A nice, white-haired 72 year-old called out the Maple Leafs on Tuesday.
Not that he would say so. You just needed to peer below the surface, just a little to see what Cliff Fletcher was talking about.
Hamstrung by five no-trade or clauses and burned by what he said was a reneg by one of the five players with that caveat, the Leafs interim GM spent much of his post-trade deadline press conference outlining his one-word plan: change.
“One thing I can assure you,” he said, “(is) that the face of the Maple Leafs hockey team come opening game will be different that it is right now,”
That includes buyouts, Fletcher said.
There are options. Mats Sundin is an unrestricted free agent and the team’s most heralded player. It would mean a terrible public relations hit, but it is an option.
Pavel Kubina has a clause in his contract that will give the Leafs the option of trading him this summer should the team fall short of the playoffs. Tomas Kaberle is said to have a similar option for the following summer.
The team could bite the bullet and buy-out Jason Blake or simply try to convince their signed players to go elsewhere.
This was Fletcher’s last stint in the GM’s chair at the trade deadline and everywhere he went, he found roadblocks. Four of the five no-traders, including captain Mats Sundin, exercised their rights to stay in Toronto. Another said yes, then no.
“Yesterday I gave one team permission to talk to one of those five players agents,” he said. “He talked to the agent, who talked to the player. Prior to last night’s game he told his agent that he would go to this particular team and then after the game, he changed his mind and called the agent and said he would not go.”
That’s the way it has been for the Leafs this year. Even when they win, they lose.
It was a day to ponder what could have been. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave up 2005-first-rounder Anthony Esposito and two top nine-forwards Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong
and a first-rounder for Marian Hossa.
While stressing that he understood Sundin’s decision, Fletcher conceded: “I think Mats had better market value than Hossa going into this period. We probably would have done very well but it’s academic right now.”
But Fletcher reserved his most withering criticism yet for the culture of the team. When asked what he thought of this year’s team, he pointed to last year’s club.
“I learned that last year they started to play pretty well when nothing was on the line and they got close to the trade deadline,” he said.
“The bottom line is, we have to get a better team here. Whether we make the playoffs or miss them by two or three points, that’s not what we’re looking for. That’s not what I was brought in for and that’s not what my successor, the ultimate man will be brought in for.”
So much for the notion of hoping to squeeze into the post-season.
He challenged the Leafs callups to step into the roster and earn their spots.
Fletcher resisted interest in the players he viewed as part of the future core, Nik Antropov and Vesa Toskala.
If this was not to be his day, Fletcher vowed another would come. Soon.